Last week, a letter from the new US administration to the Afghan president generated a lot of media buzz. This was more so because the letter was confidential and was leaked to an Afghan TV news channel – perhaps by someone in the presidential palace. The letter may not have taken Kabul by surprise, but the ‘not-so-veiled threat’ it contained did. Afghanistan’s governing elite were miffed and they didn’t hide it.
The letter surfaced shortly after a flurry of whirlwind visits by Ambassador ZalmeyKhalilzad, the US peace emissary for Afghanistan, to Doha, Kabul, and Islamabad. Khalilzad’s Doha meeting cleared fears and misgivings swirling around the media about Biden’s possible course of action in Afghanistan. A guessing game has been ongoing since Biden ordered a ‘review’ of the peace deal signed by his predecessor with the Taliban. The new developments indicate Biden doesn’t want to upset the apple cart. He appears inclined to take up the Doha process where it was left off by the Donald Trump administration with a few tweaks here and there.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the letter to both President Ashraf Ghani and High Peace Council Chairman Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The move shows the Biden administration’s desire to jumpstart the moribund process for a political settlement in Afghanistan. At the same time, it offers a sneak-peak at the strategy President Biden might pursue to this end.
DESIGN: IBRAHIM YAHYA
The leaked letter
In the letter, Blinken spells out a four-point plan to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly.” The plan envisages 1.) ministerial-level talks bringing officials from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India together with the US to discuss a ‘unified approach’; 2.) proposals “aimed at expediting discussions on a negotiated settlement and ceasefire; 3.) a senior-level meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Turkey; and 4.) a proposal to implement a 90-day reduction in violence.
Blinken concludes the letter with a chilling warning: “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options.” Under the Doha deal signed in February 2020, all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. The drawdown process began immediately after the deal signing and now Afghanistan hosts only 2,500 US servicemen [Nato troops not included].
“Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” Blinken wrote. He asked the Afghan leader to “understand the urgency of my tone.”
Blinken’s message to Ghani, to paraphrase his letter, is clear and blunt: the glacial pace of the Doha process is not acceptable; better show “urgent leadership” and help speed up the peace drive or else the American forces would withdraw leaving Ghani at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban. Currently, around 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are under the government control. The Taliban hold sway in 20 per cent, while the rest are contested, according to the Long War Journal.
Blinken’splan has triggered a mixed response – from outright rejection by the governing elite, to muted acquiescence by Afghanistan’s chief peacemaker and the Taliban. The bluntest reaction came from the first vice president. “We have the right not to hang the fate of 35 million people on someone else’s schedule,” Amrullah Saleh told a gathering in Kabul a day after the leaked letter surfaced. “The Americans and their Western allies have every right to decide the fate of 2,500 US and a few thousand Nato troops now stationed in our country,” he added while dismissing Blinken’s threat.
The new US plan envisions the formation of a ‘transitional peace government’ that would eventually transfer power to a permanent government “following the adoption of a new constitution and national elections.” The Taliban, who claim to be a government in exile, do not accept Afghanistan’s current constitution. Neither do they recognise the Ghani government which they mock as a “puppet propped up by its foreign backers.”
Ghani seems to have publicly rejected the roadmap. “Free, fair, and inclusive elections under the auspices of the international community should be the only way to form a new government,” he told lawmakers at the Afghan parliament. “Any institution can write a fantasy on a piece of paper and suggest a solution for Afghanistan. These papers have been written in the past and will be written in the future. Our guarantee is our constitution.”
However, Abdullah Abdullah, who at one point had set up a parallel government after a bitter election dispute with Ghani in 2019, said all proposals should be discussed. “I don’t defend or acknowledge US foreign secretary’s letter, but it talks about national consensus and acceleration of the peace process,” he said.
The tone and tenor of the letter reflects America’s frustration with Ghani’s often-intransigent stance in the on-again, off-again peace talks. Tellingly, similar letters were sent to President Ghani and Abdullah – something many believe signals the two are seen as equal by the new US administration. And if Ghani rejects and Abdullah accepts the roadmap, then the US might cast its lot with the latter to rev up the stalled peace drive.
‘Hollowed-out’ security forces
Blinken’s straight talk on Afghanistan’s security shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Internal US assessments have consistently painted a grim picture. “The Afghan security forces look robust on paper, with 352,000 soldiers and police officers. But the Afghan government can prove that only 254,000 of them serve in the ranks,” The Washington Post wrote in a report last December. “For years, Afghan commanders inflated the numbers so they could pocket salaries — paid by US taxpayers — for no-show or imaginary personnel, according to US government audits,” revealed the report based on the Afghanistan Papers, a confidential trove of government documents made public by The Post.
US military trainers have described the Afghan security forces as “incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters,” it added. One officer said one-third of police recruits were ‘drug addicts or Taliban’. Another called them ‘stealing fools’ who looted so much fuel from US bases that they perpetually smelled of gasoline. None of the trainers expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own.
Moreover, high casualty and desertion rates, low morale, and ineffective military leadership have hollowed out the Afghan forces. President Ghani said in January 2019 that about 45,000 Afghan troops and policemen had been killed since he took office in September 2014 – a casualty rate security experts say is not sustainable.
Saleh’s hubris and Ghani’s grandiose delusion cannot change the stark fact that the Afghan security forces remain dependent on Nato. Blinken might have sounded blunt or bossy, but his warning is based on a realistic assessment of the situation on ground.
‘Kleptocratic’ ruling elite
The financial cost of the protracted US military campaign in Afghanistan has been staggering – with some estimates putting it at a whopping $1 trillion. The US allocated more than $133 billion to rebuild the war-torn country — more than it had spent to revive Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II, according to the Post investigation.
Perhaps this gusher of dollars and the mindless rush to spend this money was a fatal mistake. A 2016 report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) strongly criticised Washington for pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan with so little oversight that it fueled a culture of ‘rampant corruption’ while the US officials failed to recognise the lethal threat it posed to their strategy.
Christopher Kolenda, a colonel who advised three US generals in charge of the Afghan war, said the Hamid Karzai-led government had “self-organised into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” The Post investigation quoted Kolenda as telling government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”
This cancer required surgical intervention, but it was knowingly left to rot and fester. Soon, the cancer metastasised to the entire government machinery with government officials, including judges, bureaucrats, and law enforcers, brazenly minting money in bribes, and in the process eroding whatever little credibility or legitimacy the central government could muster. The main beneficiary of this endemic culture of corruption was the Taliban. The militia cashed in on the pent-up grievances of the Afghan people and their growing distrust in the government to project itself as a saviour.
Alarmingly, there has been no improvement. Last year, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a nongovernmental organisation that works to increase transparency and accountability, said no action has been taken to weed out corruption despite the government’s countless commitments to the global community to this effect. The Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment endorsed the concerns. “Extortion and the involvement of strongmen have increased, the government does not bother to confront them, the most dangerous thing is that sometimes there has been the involvement of high level officials, even at the level of minister,” it said.
A viable and functioning economy is essential for Afghanistan to survive and thrive. But decades of war and rampant corruption have stymied its economic growth. While the Afghan security forces are financially and tactically dependent on Nato, Afghanistan’s economy relies heavily on foreign assistance. According to one estimate, nearly half of Afghanistan’s $20 billion economy comprises aid from international donors.
In November 2020, Afghanistan’s development partners pledged $3 billion for 2021 with a total of $12 billion offered over four years at a ministerial conference in Geneva. The aid has strings attached: Kabul has to rein in the runaway corruption, dial down violence and negotiate a ceasefire. It was the third such conference. At the previous two, Afghanistan had received a whopping $31 billion – $15 billion at Brussels in October 2016 and $16 billion at Tokyo in 2012.
According to the recent World Bank estimates, Afghanistan would require $8.5 billion per year through 2024 to ensure delivery of basic social services and provide the cost of running the government administration. The country’s economy has been in stagnation since 2014, which triggered a sharp uptick in poverty and unemployment. Fears abound that a reduction in foreign aid might result in economic collapse.
America’s Afghan strategy (or lack thereof)
Afghanistan carries the macabre epitaph‘graveyard of empires’. The Americans knew that. And perhaps they had, or believed to have, a plan to prove it wrong. “The history of military conflict in Afghanistan [has] been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake,” President George W Bush said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute on April 17, 2002, soon after toppling the Taliban regime. But that didn’t happen.
In the beginning, the US mission had a clear, stated objective: to disrupt and defeat al Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. But the goalpost started shifting as the war dragged on. Administration officials started talking about turning Afghanistan into a democracy, transforming the local culture and empowering women – something completely alien to the Afghan society where tribal and ethnic affiliations trump everything else.
This lack of clarity was further compounded by the US distrust of most countries in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood and its attempt to reconfigure the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia. In doing so, the US policymakers overlooked concerns of Afghanistan’s neighbours, which created suspicions and doubts and resulted in the lack of regional cooperation the US badly required to stabilise the volatile country.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” he admitted, according to The Post investigation.
Senior officials in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations consistently lied about the war throughout the long campaign “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” And instead of acknowledging their inherently flawed strategies and lack of clear objectives, they looked for scapegoats – a move that further strained its relations with regional countries.
Afghanistan remains as fractured as ever, as polarised as ever, as volatile as ever. The longest, costliest – and perhaps the bloodiest – military campaign in US history couldn’t change much. Nearly 2,400 US servicemen have been killed, another 20,589 maimed during the bloody campaign that cost America a whopping $1 trillion. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the administration to explain to US taxpayers that the unwinnable war is worth fighting.
The war in Afghanistan is in a strategic stalemate. US officials admit a battlefield victory is no longer the mission goal. More fighting means more death and destruction and more American taxpayers’ money. Time might be on the Taliban side as they can wait out the foreign forces while eroding the government’s control bit by bit. The picture is grim and becomes even grimmer by the day. So, what are the policy options available for the Biden administration?
There could be three possible scenarios: 1.) to adhere to the troop withdrawal timetable agreed in Doha; 2.) to delay exit and pursue a vigorous diplomatic effort to negotiate a political end to the conflict; and 3.) to continue fighting a war the US and its allies could not win in 20 years. All three options are fraught with risks. And Biden has to choose the least risky one. The US president’s decision to retain Khalilzad as peace emissary and Blinken’s letter to President Ghani make it amply clear that Option 3 is off the table.
As far Option 1, there are fears Afghanistan might relapse into chaos after the troop pullout without a permanent political settlement. This is a nightmarish scenario for the US policymakers as this would undo the gains of two decades, unleashing torrents of criticism globally and eventually pushing the Americans back into the fray. Recent statements from US and Nato officials indicate their troops would not leave Afghanistan ‘before the time is right’.
This leaves the Biden administration with Option 2,but the Taliban might construe a unilateral delay in troop withdrawal as a breach of the Doha deal. The new US administration has to directly engage with the Taliban to renegotiate any tweak in the withdrawal timetable. This process, Khalilzad’s recent Doha visit shows, is already underway.
This is perhaps the most pragmatic approach. Staying on indefinitely in a country surrounded by states with which the US has either hostile or not-so-ideal relations would only sink Washington deeper into the Afghan quicksand. Moreover, Biden’s recent push to cobble up the so-called Quad, a four-way alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India for a “sovereign, independent Indo-Pacific,” shows the Americans have a bigger fish to fry.
For regional players – neighbours in particular, Afghanistan should no longer be seen as a battleground for turf wars in pursuit of their geopolitical and geostrategic objectives. This would only perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence in a country that has been caught up in the proxy wars of regional and international powers since the late 70s. But for this to happen, the US would have to make sure its endgame plan is not influenced by its new strategic alignments in the region.
For Afghans, this should be a defining moment. The political players, including the Taliban, need to rise above their tribal and ethnic affiliations, give up parochialism, show leadership and magnanimity, and do whatever it takes for peace in their country, which has suffered far too much over the last four decades. Nothing should be set in stone. The only non-negotiable thing should be the interests of the Afghan people who deserve to live in peace and prosper.
For all stakeholders, the road to peace may not be easy one. It may be strewn with bumps and potholes. Spoilers – both within and outside Afghanistan – may also try to set up roadblocks in their efforts to throw the process off the rail. But this is the only road that leads to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan, which is the key to regional peace and stability.